Politics & irrationality

when reasonable people do unreasonable things


We want to believe that we live in a rational world, where people are logical and decisions make sense. Nowhere more than our projects do we learn just how irrational other human beings can appear to be. While it may be tempting to dismiss irrational behaviours as ‘just politics’, understanding how and why people make the decisions they do is key to becoming not just a great project manager, but a better consultant and advisor to our sponsors and key stakeholders.

The Greatest Project Challenge

Think about the last time that someone made a decision that, from the perspective of your project, appeared to be irrational, nonsensical or, at the very least, not designed in any way to help. How far back in time did you have to go? A month? A week? A day? Two hours?

For many of us, our greatest challenge as project managers has little to do with what technically gets referred to as project management. It's not about Gantt charts, or Work Breakdown Structures, or earned value calculations. Yet organizational politics is something that is fundamental to every aspect of how we manage as project managers, and our ability to master the dynamics of organizational politics in large part determines how effective a project manager we appear to be.

Our ability to understand organizational dynamics and the political reality of how these dynamics work very much influences how effectively we are able to solve some of the greatest challenges that we face as project managers:

  • Aligning and ensuring buy-in from sponsors and stakeholders as to the objectives, requirements and scope of the project.
  • Negotiating to secure and keep the resource we need to have our project run smoothly.
  • Negotiating agreement on project outcomes, completion criteria and success criteria.
  • Defining and agreeing on new processes – whether they define how we're going to manage our project, or how the organization is going to use the project's results.
  • Defining and negotiating the re-structuring and re-alignment of roles – in effect, defining what people's jobs will be after the project, and how they will change.

Each one of these situations represents a potential minefield. Negotiated badly, they could have negative repercussions on our projects, our organizations, and potentially our careers. What remains a significant challenge for most project managers, however, is the seemingly irrational nature of organizational politics and understanding why decisions get made the way they do. When decisions appear irrational, illogical or downright inappropriate, it becomes extremely difficult to understand what actions to take or how to appropriately influence situations to ensure that issues with our projects are resolved in the a way that is effective, appropriate and rational.

Understanding The Decision Making Process

To effectively influence the political process, we first need to understand how decisions actually get made. This requires an appreciation of the dynamics that govern the decision making process, the relationships that exist within this process and the factors that influence how these relationships work. For many of us, Exhibit 1 represents the traditional view of how decisions are made in an organizational context.

The Traditional View Of Organizational Decision Making

Exhibit 1- The Traditional View Of Organizational Decision Making

The traditional organizational chart implies a rational, top-down and compartmentalized means of decision making. Within this framework, a problem is escalated to the appropriate level within the organizational structure, at which point a decision is made and communicated down the hierarchy to the appropriate level for action to be taken. While having every appearance of logic, rationality, and efficiency, the reality is that in the eyes of most observers this does not accurately reflect the process by which decisions truly are made.

Thomas and Buckle (2004) suggest that decisions get made in the white spaces between the lines of the traditional organizational chart. The lines of influence, therefore, are not simply the solid ones that connect each box but the invisible ones that transcend both layers and silos of this structure, as illustrated in Exhibit 2.

Decision making influences within the white space

Exhibit 2 – Decision making influences within the white space

By understanding the lines of influence that exist across, around and underneath the traditional organizational chart, a much more accurate map of the organization emerges. This map of influences is something that can consciously and deliberately be developed over time as interactions reveal the underlying relationships, influences, and dynamics that exist within the organization.

The Human Dynamics Of Decision Making

Over and above the organizational dynamics, decisions are the product of individual human beings. As such, their personal views, biases, and psychological make-up all bring to bear on the decisions that they make and the imperatives they create. The most significant factor to understand in appreciating human dynamics is that, in the words of Dr. Phil, “People do what works.”

In essence, this means that all decisions are rational from the perspective of the person making the decision. From that person's perspective, their decisions are clear, rational, and consistent and make absolute sense, based upon their hopes, ambitions, and fears and based upon the outcomes they think they want. The practical impact is that if a decision appears irrational to us, it means that we are not seeing the situation in the same manner as they are. To understand the decision, we need to understand their perspective. In essence, we need to “reverse engineer” the decision to be able to answer the question “from what perspective does this decision actually make sense?”

In evaluating possible perspectives, it is important to understand and be aware of the organizational and societal influences that also can impact our decision making processes. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, altruistic decision making is rare – in part, because organizational rewards and alignment do not often reward cooperation. For many organizations, their largest competitor is themselves, with units and divisions of the same company slogging it out in front of their customers for sales and market share. Even when these influences are less obvious, the factors that determine one person's bonus structure, performance appraisal or promotion opportunities can often result in either competitive behaviors or, at the very least, a conscious choice to avoid co-operation.

Equally influential are the factors that govern personal perceptions of power and self-worth. The impact of power for its own sake is a strong aphrodisiac for some, and one that is not easily resisted. The object of the decision in these situations becomes less about rationality or a focus on the end result, and is instead supplanted with an understanding of what will most enhance internal or external perceptions of influence and power.

While these dimensions of self-perception, in and of themselves, are complex, they are also not the only dimensions that influence how any one person may choose to resolve a problem or decision. Understanding the perspective from a which a decision is viewed first requires identification of the decision-making lens being used. As Exhibit 3 illustrates, organizational rewards and personal self-worth are only two of many possible lenses through which any decision can be regarded.

Understanding The Decision-Making Lens

Exhibit 3 – Understanding The Decision-Making Lens

Only one of these factors is the actual needs of the project, which creates significant opportunities for other factors to come into play within the decision making process that will ultimately determine whether the outcome appears rational or is the one we require to allow our project to proceed forward.

Influencing The Decisions Of Others

Once we have been able to develop an appreciation of the influences that govern organizational decisions and the relationships that govern these influences, and we have gained a better understanding of the lenses through which individual stakeholders may view a decision, our next challenge is to determine how best to influence the perceptions of any given decision to create the outcome that we require.

Cohen and Bradford (1991) identify a framework for creating influence in situations where we do not have the organizational authority (as granted by the boxes and lines in the traditional organization chart) to create the outcomes we need, as illustrated in Exhibit 4.

Creating Influence Without Authority

Exhibit 4 - Creating Influence Without Authority

In essence, they define four steps to being able to create influence in situations where we do not have the organizational authority to require a specific outcome:

  • Knowing Our Objectives. The first and most important step is to understand what outcome we are trying to accomplish. What is the problem we are trying to solve, or the objective we are looking to realize? To accomplish this, what support do we require, and what source is most appropriate to provide that support or assistance?
  • Understanding Others' Needs. Once we have identified the support we are looking for, and the person or group we are looking for that support from, we must next understand what is of appeal to them. How are they likely to view our request? Does it seek an outcome that will have mutual value to them? What ‘price’ might they put on their assistance? What are their needs or challenges, and what resolution might they view as being appropriate?
  • Evaluating Your Resources. Based upon what the other party might look upon as a fair exchange in return for assisting you, what resources do you have available to you that you can draw on? What specific benefits could you offer the other person in exchange for the support that you require?
  • Defining and Making Your Approach. Once you have a clear understanding of the outcome you are seeking, the needs and requirements of the person or group that can provide you with that support, and what you have to offer them to address their needs or requirements, you are finally able to define how to best approach them, and to make the approach.

The challenge for many of us as project management is that while this structure on the face of it seems logical, the process often falls apart at the third step, as we evaluate our resources and arrive at a conclusion that we have none – or at least none that are of sufficient attraction to positively influence the outcome that we require.

Our Resources Are the Consequences We Create

What is most important in influencing a rational outcome to the decisions our projects require is to recognize that the most valuable resources that we have available to us are the often consequences that we can create. These consequences can be both positive and negative, but they represent our primary currency in creating influence where we cannot rely on the formal paths of the organizational chart to deliver the decisions our projects need.

Positive consequences, while appearing fairly straightforward, may range from the simple to the complex. These consequences can be a promise for current or future assistance, making available resources to address a specific need, providing recognition of the contribution that a counterpart makes, agreeing providing co-operation or assistance in a future situation, providing direct support, and assistance or simply declining to oppose the actions of another. Each of these scenarios represents an opportunity to create positive outcomes. Each of these positive outcomes becomes a potential resource that we can bring to a negotiation situation where we are endeavouring to create influence without authority.

Equally available to us are the creation of negative consequences. While they need to be exercised with caution, and their nature will vary depending upon the situation, the identification or creation of negative consequences have a potentially far greater impact in negotiating resolution of a decision. Those consequences may be the formal identification of a lack of co-operation being received, the withholding of resources, the rescheduling of when a department receives a rollout, or even the removal of yourself from the project as its manager.

These consequences may carry with them additional consequences, whether implicit or explicit. Our choosing to remove ourselves as project manager may carry with it the consequence of severing our relationship with the company that we work for. In evaluating our resources we need to give consideration to these consequences and whether we choose to exercise them. Fortunately, not all decisions and situations carry the potential gravity of needing to threaten to quit or risk being fired. Where they do, it is important to ensure that we are truly reading the situation correctly and have a clear appreciation of the dynamics and underlying factors that make such a decision necessary. Where we are faced with an irrational outcome and not choosing to act to correct it where our conviction is to do otherwise, however, is to answer one irrationality with another.


Cohen, A.R. & Bradford, D.L. (1991). Influence without authority. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons.

Thomas, J. & Buckle, P. (2004). Living in the white spaces between the lines. Proceedings of the International Research Network on Organizing by Projects (IRNOP VI), Turku, Finland.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Copyright © 2005 Mark Mullaly
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada



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